Dateline: Provincetown, Massachusetts, November 27, 2008
Just weeks ago, Barack Obama had been elected the 44th president of the
United States, yet liberal journalist Mike Flannigan is the only political pundit in America not writing about it. In fact, while his colleagues are exhausting every minutia of
the historic election, Mike takes an ill-advised and deeply unpopular
leave of absence from his magazine to go on an epic road trip up and
down the upper east coast. Why?
What was supposed to be an overnight trip began when he gets a cryptic
email from his childhood friend, former bandmate and one-time lover
Josiah (JoJo) Vandermeer. It's the first time he hears from him in years
and the email reads only, "Let's get the guys together." Fearing the
worst, Mike leaves his family and tells his editor-in-chief Ari
Goldstein to see his old friend and perhaps reunite with his old band,
the Immortals. There are questions surrounding the promising hard rock
band's abrupt breakup back in 1978 that never sat well with the other
But while the group of middle-aged men get some answers and some of
their old musical mojo back, Jo Jo suddenly dies on the road. This
excerpt from chapter 44 of American Zen
starts at Jo Jo's grave after the funeral and his husband, Jeremy
Fleming, fearing being alone for the first time in years, invites Mike,
Billy and Rob to share Thanksgiving dinner with him. During this
chapter, Mike realizes what he should be grateful for and that, despite
pressure from his editor and wife and kids to come home during a
perpetually extended sabbatical, he actually has more to be thankful for
than the other three men who have suffered even more devastating
losses. They sit down to eat a dinner that was prepped by Jo Jo just
days before his death, his final gift to his husband and friends.
The service was short and uneventful,
although far from forgettable. Rob and I took photos with our cell phones and I
emailed one to Doris with a brief expression of love and a promise to be home
heart sank with Jo Jo as they lowered him into the rectangular grave. The
three of us hung back, allowing Jeremy to throw the first handful of dirt onto
the coffin lid six feet below. As I threw my own in, I realized with a start
that the minute we turned our backs, Jo Jo would be swallowed up by the earth,
hardly a trace of his existence allowed to remain besides our fragile living
we were wiping dirt from our hands, Jeremy asked us at graveside, “I think it
would be very nice if you were to join me for dinner. There won’t
be a reception because I didn’t want to have one and, besides, it’s
Thanksgiving. But I’d be honored if you would join me.”
suddenly occurred to me that Jo Jo had prepared dinner just before we left for
New York State. “No, the honor would be all ours,” I said, knowing the other
guys would feel the same way.
in the apartment, we immediately shed our jackets and inhaled the rich aroma of
the turkey. The only thing that Jeremy had to do was pop the bird in the oven
just before we went to the funeral home. Jo Jo had done all the prep work.
slipped on an oven mitt, pulled down the oven door and tore off a piece of
turkey skin. It crunched lightly in his mouth. “Mm, perfect. I’m famished. I
hope you guys are, too,” he said as he turned off the oven.
I was, despite my little accident at the funeral home garage. Remembering that,
I decided to brush my teeth after I washed my hands for dinner.
and Billy were only too happy to help Jeremy clear and set the table. After
all, what else did these men have but each other? Rob’s marriage hit an
iceberg, Billy I’m sure lived totally alone and Jeremy just buried his husband.
sometimes sneaks up on you and taps you on the shoulder, clearing its throat
and politely saying, “Uh, excuse me?” And sometimes it hits you from behind
like a mugger with a blackjack (or a suicidal ex-SEAL), giving no regard for
timing or the rudeness of its appearance. This moment was one of the latter.
what about me? Why did I have to be here? Well, respect for Jo Jo and his
efforts would be a good reason but why was I here instead of hightailing it
home to eat Thanksgiving dinner with my own family? That was the point.
didn’t have to be here. It was a lesson, a fact that I should’ve always
taken for granted. I didn’t have to be here. It was purely a matter of choice
because I wanted to show Jeremy and Jo Jo the proper respect, because I didn’t
want him to be alone. I didn’t want Rob to be alone. I didn’t want Billy to be
alone. I had a choice. They didn’t.
had a choice because I really did have a loving, supportive, compassionate wife
and three kids anxious about my absence. I had a good career doing something I
loved to do. I was the luckiest bastard among all of us, if not the luckiest
bastard on earth. I didn’t have to be here. I wasn’t that desperate to
stave off loneliness.
seemed like a changed man. Obviously, some of it was an act, a conscious, maybe
a desperate attempt to liven up the place, to establish some holiday spirit
into the apartment. Far from being the merry widower, now that he was finally
freed of over 90 days of crushing fear and oppression fretting and worrying
over Jo Jo, he could almost be said to have a spring in his step as he hustled
back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room table with steaming
chafing dishes of food.
seemed to bow then quickly threw his head back, gathering with his hands his
glistening, bouncy mass of brown hair and pulling it back into a perfect high
and tight ponytail very much like the one Jo Jo wore when he was doing the prep
work. He then wiped the sweat off his brow with his linen napkin before
announcing, “We have food, gentlemen!” Billy loudly clapped his hands together
and was first at the table, Rob just a half step behind. I wasn’t sure if they
knew that Jo Jo had done all the prep work.
sat to the right of me and took my right hand as he bowed his head. I didn’t
realize that he was into religion. He didn’t even go to the church with us last
Sunday but he wanted to say grace, so I took Billy’s right hand in my left and
so forth and we bowed our heads, our eight hands linked.
think we all ought to thank Jo Jo for giving us this delicious food that we’re
all about to receive. He did all the work. All I did was throw the turkey in
the oven and pray I wouldn’t burn it.” He smiled and continued. “And this
dinner, made with his own two hands, is in a way a perfect illustration of the
kind of life he led. He was always thinking about others first until he was
finally forced to think of himself.
even then, I’d also like to think that, in his rare moment of selfishness, if
you can call it that, we all benefited from the journey that we’d been
privileged to share with him. We all benefited enormously from having known and
loved him and that’s what I’m grateful for.” “Amen,” he added as an
afterthought. I squeezed Jeremy’s left hand and smiled. He really said it for
all of us.
who wants dark meat and who wants light meat?”